Jalebis at Midnight

Stale jalebis always tasted better. Agreed that fresh jalebis had an extra crisp crunch but the true taste was enhanced the next morning when the jalebi’s stiffness yielded to a chewy goodness and a sour tinge crept in offsetting the cloying sweetness perfectly.

Sarala loved jalebis, especially the ones made by Ramlal at the corner sweetmeat shop. Her father always brought hot jalebis home for breakfast along with piping hot kachoris with hot spicy potato curry. Sarala and Ravi would tuck in while their father watched indulgently and ignored his wife’s long drawn tirade against the quality of ‘outside food’ and the ‘oil’ that would surely give them a stomach upset. Sarala would lick at every smear of curry on her fingers with relish and secretly hide one jalebi away for the next day to eat it at leisure savouring it. Ravi hardly gave her competition for the jalebis. He was partial to the kachoris, demolishing his share in no time. At other times, he hardly used to eat at home. He had droves of friends scattered all over the locality and he spent more time with them than with his family. More time than what was good for him.

Sarala’s daughter was going to be married in the auspicious month of Shravan. She decided to go to Ravi’s home to invite them personally for the wedding. Not that she needed any help from them. Not after they had stopped inviting Sarala for festivals and hardly made themselves free to attend family functions. It was just that she wanted an excuse to drop in unannounced and uninvited and give them a piece of her mind. She would let Ravi know how hurt she was by his indifference and she would let Ratna know exactly what she thought of her. Some things had to be said and done.

After an uneventful journey, she located the house with a little difficulty. The rickshaw passed the affluent looking houses and moved into a disreputable neighbourhood or so she thought. She was always quick to jump to conclusions. The roads became narrower and the drains uncovered in patches till she could see black rivers of vile filth flanking the road. Garbage was heaped everywhere and the stench that rose from it made her hold her nose and cover her mouth. The sight of a child openly playing in the drain water made her wince. The houses became smaller, each abode leaning against the other for support. Children stopped playing and women looked up from their chores to stare at her as she alighted and paid the rickshaw puller his fare. The sun beat down her head mercilessly but when Ratna opened the door, the room was as dark as a cinema theatre with the show running. A surreptitious, seedy matinee show.

Ratna’s expression when she saw Sarala was inscrutable. She stood up and dusted the lone chair in the room and adjusted her sari folds.

‘Come in Sarala,’ she mumbled, ’If you had told us you were visiting I would have come to the Bus Stand to pick you up.’

‘Uh huh? So that you people lock the house and go away, to avoid meeting me. Anyway, I do not think I have to inform you anything. If a sister wants to meet her brother, who are you to interfere?’

Ratna hurried to the kitchen to make some coffee and Sarala’s voice followed her. ‘And what kind of neighbourhood do you think you are living in? How very unsuitable for growing girls. I’m surprised Ravi agreed to live here. He is so particular about such things…’

‘Namaste Auntie,’ came a meek voice that put an end to Sarala’s rant.

‘Ok… ok… bless you. Now stand up. How are you? What are you studying?’

The rest of the conversation was inaudible as the neighbor switched on his TV and the ‘saas-bahu’ drama took over, with the vitriolic voice of the mother-in-law goading the ever suffering daughter-in-law. If only her mother were alive, thought Sarala. She would have ensured Ratna ‘mended’ her ways.

Ravi walked out of the bathroom, vigorously toweling his hair and stood still. He stared at his sister talking to his daughter.

His eyes were bloodshot and face lined with wrinkles. His hair was grey and he had not shaved for four days at least. He looked thin, emaciated and walked with a limp. He gave a grin to Sarala that reminded her of Death’s head.

Soon, after the initial awkwardness, Sarala turned on the charm she had reserved for her brother. Ravi was giving monosyllabic answers when Ratna walked in with two steel tumblers of coffee.

Sarala sipped at her coffee and winced. ‘Chee, coffee or ditch water! Ravi, you used to buy coffee only from Suma Coffee Works. What is this?’

Ratna went back to the kitchen and served Ravi his breakfast. She gave Sarala hot water for her bath. By the time Sarala emerged from her bath both Ravi and Geeta were out.

‘I don’t know what has come over Ravi. He has changed. If I had known you would let this happen to him I would have intervened earlier. By the way where is your mangalsutra and bangles? Don’t you know it is inauspicious for a married woman to remove these things?’

Ratna made no answer but went about her work quietly.

‘I knew there was something wrong but did not think you would allow all this. Why are you here in this area? What happened to all the money you got from the sale of the house? It seems to me that you have lost all control over everything. Ravi is a fool. He believes everyone easily. You must have led him astray. I knew you were no good the moment I saw you. You never allow him to write to me. If you had told me, I would have taken the next train and landed here. Ravi would have listened to me. A good housewife knows how to balance things.’

Ratna gave reheated upma to Sarala and went into the bathroom.

When she came out she saw Sarala rummaging through the tins in the kitchen.

‘I thought I would get lunch ready. The state of your kitchen is appalling. There is barely any rice or dal. Don’t you order provisions at the beginning of the month? And today is only the tenth.’

There was a knock at the door.

Sarala opened it to find a vegetable vendor trying to put down a huge basket on the ground, giving her a quizzical look.

‘Help me with this. Who are you? Where is Ratnamma? Ratnamma…’

‘I am her sister-in-law,’

‘Oh….ho, you finally decided to see your brother and his poor wife, eh?’

‘Poor wife? Poor brother by the look of it…’ muttered Sarala under her breath.

‘Ratnamma is a real gem. Any other woman would have…’

‘Gowri, what have you brought today? I hope you have some greens. Sarala loves Soppinhuli. And I will take a quarter kilo of these beautiful brinjals. I shall make some ennegai, stuffed brinjal curry.’

‘Save some for me. I shall collect the money from you later. Got to go now.’ Gowri walked away gracefully with the basket of vegetables balanced perfectly on her head.

Ratna busied herself with the household chores. She could feel her Sarala’s eyes boring into her back as she walked out with the bucket of washed clothes to dry on the terrace.

When Ratna returned Sarala was peering into her wardrobe.

‘Don’t think I am inquisitive or interfering. I came here to invite you for my daughter’s wedding, but seeing you people in this condition I decided to get to the bottom of things. Where are the silk sarees we gave you at your wedding? Where are the silk sarees your parents gave you? And why are there only four sarees in your wardrobe? What is happening?’

Ratna turned away and said, ‘I must get lunch ready.’

Sarala lay on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. The fan was clean. No cobwebs in the corners. The house was clean and Ratna was a good cook, no doubt. She had been beautiful once, now her face was careworn and haggard. Sarala felt guilty she was being a tad too mean in her behaviour. But she brushed it aside as she remembered Ravi’s caged expression.

After lunch Ratna sat at her sewing machine stitching ‘falls’ on sarees. A woman came to the door and took away the neatly folded and packed sarees.

Ratna poured a measure of milk and water into a saucepan and added tea leaves. She put it on the stove to boil. She added sugar and strained it. She carried the tea to Sarala and woke her up. As she handed the tea to her, Sarala noticed a bruise on her arm.

‘What is that?’

‘Nothing really, all in a day’s work.’

When the child came home she was given tea with puffed rice. Chattering about her day, she went about putting her books away neatly, changed out of her uniform and sat to do her homework. The child was brought up well, Sarala thought grudgingly.

Ravi came home at seven o’ clock with a paper parcel.

‘These are hot jalebis for Saru. Saru loves them, don’t you dear?’

‘I shall eat them later. I don’t want to spoil my appetite for dinner.’

Ravi washed up, had tea and got ready to go out.

‘Where are you going Ravi? Sit down. I want to talk to you about Rupa’s wedding.’

‘I’ll be back in an hour, and then we shall catch up on old times.’

At the door Ravi was accosted by Ratna who said something to him in a low tone. ‘Please, it’s only for a day. She is leaving tomorrow.’

Sarala’s blood boiled. How dare Ratna whisper secrets to her husband in front of his sister? Really, the woman had no decency. She looked over at Geeta. Geeta looked at her parents and hastily averted her eyes. Ratna turned to Sarala and gave her a bright smile.

‘Come Sarala, I shall serve you dinner.’

‘I shall wait for Ravi.’

“He may be delayed. Dinner will get cold’

‘it is alright. I would prefer to eat with my brother.’

Sarala watched as Ratna sat by her child giving her a light meal. After the meal she cleared the place and laid out a mattress for Geeta. Geeta lay curled up into a tight little ball. Ratna covered the sleeping child with a blanket and sat on the concrete slab outside. Sarala attempted no conversation with her. She decided she would let her brother know what she felt.

The time was nine o’ clock. The door was suddenly flung open and unsteady footsteps shuffled into the house.

‘Ratna! Come here! What are you doing, you ******?’

Sarala sat as still as a statue. Ratna moved around as if she were a machine, avoiding looking in Sarala’s direction.

‘Where is my dinner? Who is this woman? WHO ARE YOU? Oh Sa… ru… Sa… ra… la…SARALA! Eyyyy…Ratna! Do you see my sister here? All of them are ****** rotten rascals- my father, my mother and my sister…Look at her… aha! She is sitting here as if she doesn’t know anything… you selfish wretch… you got married and went away… what did you know what I went through when you went away. Father died leaving me in debt and I sold the house and my friends took away whatever money I had left and now you come here to tell me your daughter is getting married. Your husband the ****** ******* was only interested in what I had to give him and you turned your back on me. All of you can rot in hell. This woman here tells me not to drink…****** dangerous ******… I shall do as I please. ‘

‘Have you been drinking?’

‘Who said I am drunk?  Prove it, you rascal…Here smell my breath…Ahhhhhh….’ Fumes of cheap liquor filled the air, a sharp contrast to the scent of agarbatti that still lingered in the room. ‘What does that smell like? Would you dare to talk to your husband this way? I spit on you… ******!’

A trembling Sarala wiped at her face but the stench of liquor would not go away.

The beast had now turned his undivided attention to his wife, raining blows on her. Sarala tried to intervene but a well-aimed slap, too well-aimed for an inebriated person, flung her to the dark corner where Geeta was sleeping. She took one look at the child who had her eyes tightly shut and body tensed and coiled like a spring. Her heart went out to her. Sobbing, she patted her head and the child recoiled, rejecting her kind gesture. Strangely, that was more painful than Ravi’s unexpected avatar.

Ratna was now sobbing silently, trying to get dinner ready for Ravi. She placed the plate in front of him and he picked up a morsel and spat it out as soon as he put it into his mouth. “Thoo! There is no salt in this. Do you even know how to cook? You are like the rest of your family…crooked *********.  Come here!’

He took a handful of rice in his hands and smeared it on Ratna’s head. ‘First learn how to cook. And then COOK!’ If it were not so real, Ratna would have presented rather a comical sight with grains of rice, sticking to her hair. Sarala could only think how Ratna would get all that mess cleaned.

Ravi got up to his feet unsteadily and picked up the vessels with food and emptied the contents into the gutter flowing outside.

‘Don’t! Your sister has to have her dinner!’

‘Get out of my way!’

First the rice, mounds of little even pearls, floated away like tiny islands. Then the soppinahuli had a glorious tryst with the black waters. Ravi then picked up each brinjal and threw them at the neighbours sitting outside, staring at him. Sarala marvelled at his aim. An irate woman began shouting at Ravi and Ravi used the choicest of abuses that made Sarala’s ears burn. The different allusions to mothers, sisters, sorceresses, witches and animals with reference to verbs of varying degrees of depravity made her head reel. Her mother was dead, good for her! If she had to listen to all this, she would have died all over again. But what about the living?

After venting his spleen on the neighbours, Ravi stumbled into the house and sat slumped on the bed. His watchful eyes, with drunken cunning, ensured the women did not budge.

He waxed eloquent. He spoke of past wrongs, real and imagined, and abused every person they had known and revered. He got up and threw a few pots and pans across the room for good measure. He picked up the picture of The Family Deity from the little shelf that served as an altar and threw it down with great force. Then he sank down to the floor and held on to the picture and began crying out loud in agony. Gradually his bawling subsided into racking sobs and then after what seemed an eternity, he began to snore, in the mess of his own creation.

The women stirred, warily at first and after a few trial attempts, Ratna got up from her temporary paralysis and moved about, quietly, tidying the room. Geeta tiptoed to the bathroom and hugged her mother tightly, before settling down to sleep.

Silence reigned, snatches of conversations from the neighbours punctuated it uneasily.

After a while Ratna said, ‘Sorry Sarala, you had to see this. Sorry about dinner.’

Sarala said nothing.

Tears flowed down her cheeks, she made no attempt to brush them away.

Ratna sat still and Sarala cried quietly, so as to not wake the beast.

After Sarala stopped sobbing, Ratna brought her the paper parcel. She tore the parcel open and took out the jalebis. ‘Please eat this. It is midnight. You must be hungry.’

The beast stirred in his stupor. ‘Eh… Sarrrrla…..’ and snored.

Careful not to make any sound, they sat in the darkness, hungrily munching on the jalebis which were juicy and chewy, tinged with a little sourness, just like how Sarala liked them.

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